A pair of undefeated heavyweight contenders meet on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden in New York in a wildly important bout to the future of boxing’s glamour division. Bryant Jennings and Mike Perez are two terrifically tough, highly skilled and extremely motivated big men who could help provide a shot in the arm to boxing’s most historically significant weight class.
Let’s face it. For whatever reason, heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko, despite his consistent and continued excellence, just has not caught on with the American boxing public.
Perhaps one of the reasons, though there may be many more, is that Klitschko has not had to face real and treacherous competition for most of his long reign atop the heavyweight mountain.
But the tea kettle of the next batch of serious contenders is on the stove now and could be steaming out the top of the lid soon.
Both Jennings and Perez are part of an interesting and dynamic class of up-and-coming heavyweights who could provide a stern test to the 38-year-old Klitschko. The group includes Jennings, Perez, Deontay Wilder, Bermane Stiverne, Tyson Fury and Kubrat Pulev.
The first two men of the group are scheduled to face each other on Saturday. Jennings will take on Perez in a bout to be televised on HBO.
The next two, Wilder and Stiverne, appear to be on a collision course, too.
According to BoxingScene.com’s Salvador Rodriguez, the World Boxing Council (WBC) will soon order the bout as a mandatory for Stiverne, who holds the WBC heavyweight title.
Tyson Fury was scheduled to meet former title challenger Dereck Chisora on Saturday in the U.K., but the latter pulled out this week due to a fractured hand, according to ESPN.com’s Dan Rafael.
The good news for fight fans is that the boisterous Fury will fight a fill-in opponent, last-minute substitute Alexander Ustinov, according to Rafael, in a bout between two of the division’s physically largest men.
The final man on the list has the tallest order. Pulev faces Klitschko on September 6 in Hamburg, Germany.
But Klitschko-Pulev seems to be just the first in a long line of good fights for him. Where Klitschko’s long title reign has been marred by moribund and uninteresting challengers, the next wave of foes will present the best heavyweight in the world with new problems to solve.
From an American point of view, Jennings and Wilder seem most likely to bring heavyweight glory back across the pond. Jennings is a hard-working technician who knows when to step on the gas, and Wilder has rocks in his fists to the point of knocking out every opponent he’s ever faced.
But Jennings will have his hands full against Perez, a smallish, but superbly skilled, heavyweight who won the World Junior Amateur Championships at light heavyweight in 2004 for his home country of Cuba.
This dude can fight.
Since defecting to Ireland seven years ago, Perez has become a stalwart heavyweight contender and has compiled 20 wins with no losses. In January, Perez fought a 10-round draw with Carlos Takam in what might have been an uninspiring effort spurred on by Perez’s previous fight, a tragic encounter with Magomed Abdusalamov in New York.
In that fight, Perez looked to hit his peak. He was fast, skilled and knocked Abdusalamov around the ring for 10 rounds. The brave Abdusalamov kept at it to the point of making it to the bell, but he was rushed to the hospital afterward and put into a drug-induced coma to relieve brain swelling.
Just 10 months later against Takam, Perez didn’t look the same fighter. He appeared largely disinterested in the proceedings and didn’t seem to fight with the same spark.
But if Perez can get his ferocity back, his talent and ability make him a mini-wrecking ball in a division sorely in need of one.
If the peak version of Perez shows up on Saturday, Jennings will need to keep the shorter, stockier bulldog at the end of his longer punches. Jennings will have a size advantage but doesn’t have enough pop in his punches to do anything but outwork Perez.
The fight should be a barnburner and will help determine which fighter is ready for a shot at Klitschko’s lineal championship.
When HBO Sport’s director of programming, Peter Nelson, talked with Bleacher Report about Jennings-Perez back in May (before the original date was postponed and moved from Corpus Christi to New York), he was adamant that the bout was important to the heavyweight landscape:
Obviously, Wladimir Klitschko remains a commanding force in Europe and he is universally recognized as the reigning heavyweight champion to beat. But I think that after a lull period in America, in terms of the heavyweight division, it seems as if there’s growing interest, intrigue and compelling fights to be made. I think that Jennings figures into that mosaic, and this fight is exactly what fans want to see out of young, hungry prospects, where their skill sets are put to the test in a 50-50 fight, Mike Perez being in the exact same boat.
Yes, boxing could use more 50-50 fights in general. But when’s the last time a 50-50 fight between two attention-grabbing heavyweight contenders happened? Can you even remember?
A fight like Jennings-Perez could help inch the division back to forefront of boxing.
Host of HBO Boxing telecasts Jim Lampley told Bleacher Report the very same thing. While Lampley didn’t believe either Jennings or Perez would have enough of whatever it will take to dethrone Klitschko, he was glad to see two exciting heavyweights tussle for the chance to prove him wrong:
"It’s a very interesting matchup, because Perez has a...deeper amateur background and more technical training at an earlier age than Jennings had."
Klitschko has not lost a fight since 2004. Think about that. The absurdly gifted and successful champion hasn’t lost since George W. Bush was seeking a second term in office and Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction stunned Super Bowl audiences during its halftime show.
But Klitschko will lose eventually, assuming he keeps fighting on until someone comes around who is good enough to beat him.
Jennings-Perez will factor into that story in one way or another. Will any of this class of heavyweight contenders be the kind to give Klitschko a run for his money? Or will he vanquish them all just as he did the rest?
Let’s find out.
Kelsey McCarson is a member of the Unaffiliated Boxing Writers Association, a fictional organization comprised of Deadspin’s Iron Mike Gallego and Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Snowden that only exists on Twitter.